Dr. Brian Chermol of Santee retired as a U.S. Army colonel. During a 31-year career, he saw action in four war zones.
The military story began at age 17 when Chermol, with his parents' written permission, joined the Army, enlisting for Special Forces.
He qualified for and attended Infantry Officer Candidate School for six months and was commissioned as a second lieutenant one day after his 19th birthday. He also attended Airborne (Paratroop) School and Ranger (Commando) School.
Lt. Chermol was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.
His "secret" was that he was the youngest commissioned officer since World War II. That earned him appearances on two popular TV quiz shows: "I've Got a Secret" and "To Tell the Truth."
In 1965, rebel forces and partisans supported by Cuba staged a coup attempt in the Dominican Republic. Within two hours after activation by the president, Chermol's company flew off to conduct a planned airborne assault on the capital city.
After a few hours fighting down the main avenue, the rebels had fled. While searching for rebels and weapons house to house, Chermol's men went into an apartment.
Chermol said that while he held the male occupant at gunpoint, his men searched the house, finding a small pamphlet printing press with communist literature. As Chermol diverted his attention to see the printing press, the suspect whirled around and pulled a pistol from his belt. Chermol killed him with a short burst of automatic fire from his M-16.
The next day, Chermol's platoon was guarding the CIA compound on the embassy grounds. A World War II fighter plane from the DR air force, stolen by a rebel pilot, made a gun run on the embassy. Returning for a second pass, he was shot down by the platoon's machine gunners -- believed to be the first aircraft shot down by American forces since the Korean War in the '50s.
For six months, Chermol and his troops kept the peace in the DR.
Chermol returned to Fort Bragg and completed the Special Forces Officer's Course. However, with South Vietnam under siege in early 1965, Chermol and other Airborne-Ranger officers were sent with haste to South Vietnam to serve as advisers.
His duties included directing airstrikes and helicopter movements (using U.S. aircraft secretly in country then) and providing tactical intelligence to Army and CIA analysts. The 13 months were spent 90% walking the rice paddies, with occasional amphibious assaults, fighting mainly local Viet Cong. During this tour, Chermol received the Bronze Star for valor for returning to an open rice paddy to defend a wounded NCO adviser from a VC assault.
One of Chermol's memories is an ambush during which the troops dismounted the vehicles and moved to cover about 300 yards away from the vehicles. The senior adviser preferred Chermol to drive the team jeep, so when the battalion commander decided that the best course of action would be returning to the vehicles and driving out of the "kill zone," Chermol, as a driver, had to sprint to the vehicles with the other drivers while under heavy fire. Some of the drivers were wounded, but everyone made it out alive.
At 10 months, the senior U.S. adviser (a captain) left for home. The South Vietnamese commander insisted Chermol be elevated to the senior position.
Thus, Chermol became the only lieutenant assigned as a senior infantry battalion adviser in South Vietnam -- and extended his tour at the South Vietnamese commander's request.
Chermol then was assigned to Fort Polk (Tiger Land), where he served as a company commander for an infantry training company from which 95% of the students would serve in Vietnam upon graduation.
Chermol went back to Vietnam.
On this tour, he served in the mountains of central Vietnam commanding an infantry company. In this area, the enemy was usually the North Vietnamese army -- better trained and much better equipped than the Viet Cong.
Typically, companies spent three weeks in the field and one week securing an artillery firebase. Usually, units walking the hills would take enemy fire about every other day as the units searched areas where surveillance aircraft or radio intercepts had determined enemy units were located.
The infantry units on the ground were the "bait," Chermol said. Once engaged, Chermol would make maximum use of artillery; helicopter gunships; jet fighter aircraft with rockets, bombs and napalm; and large modified cargo aircraft armed with sensors and high-rate-of-fire machine guns.
Chermol said he never hesitated to call in fire support, even on a hunch. That contributed to his unit's high kill ratio, with only two of his soldiers killed in action -- both of whom he still remembers to this day.
He recalled that one day a new artillery observer attached to his company "balked" at calling in artillery on an area that had been used for an ambush previously. Capt. Chermol told the lieutenant that perhaps he could see better if rather than being in the middle of the march column, he moved up to the lead platoon (obviously the most dangerous place to be). Within five minutes, the lieutenant had "rounds on the way."
During his tour as a company commander, Chermol was awarded the Army's Silver Star and South Vietnam's highest award for valor. While pursuing a North Vietnamese regiment (about 3,000 men), Chermol's 70-man company was pinned down by a machine gun nest left to slow his unit's movement. His headquarters section (i.e., radio operators) was directly across an open field from the emplacement and no one could move. The enemy was well dug in with overhead cover -- too close for an air strike and there was no artillery within range.
Using a classic infantry tactic (fire and maneuver), Chermol had one of his best machine gunners engage the enemy every time Chermol started sprinting and/or creeping forward behind a series of 9-inch high dike walkways on a dry rice field.
You have free articles remaining.
Once Chermol got within range, he threw grenades in the opening at the front of the bunker. The two North Vietnamese threw them back, since the NCO needed to stop firing and reload/cool the gun.
Another soldier crawled forward toward Chermol and tossed him a few more grenades. This time, Chermol held them longer than recommended after pulling the pin. Both grenades exploded in the bunker, killing one North Vietnamese soldier and wounding the other. Chermol jumped up and rushed forward, killing the wounded soldier.
Then a real surprise. There were more bunkers to each side of this one -- in a semicircle. Chermol turned around as an enemy soldier came out of one bunker. He was killed, then Chermol killed the other NVA in that position.
Moving quickly to the other side of the first bunker, Chermol killed both NVA in the third bunker. The rest of the company then charged through the break in the enemy line and, after giving the NVA soldiers a chance to surrender, killed them all -- nearly 30.
His award from the South Vietnamese came after his company was "sweeping" a hilltop and Chermol and his artillery observer ducked into a small cave to get out of the sun. Upon entering, they saw two NVA observers sitting at a large opening at the other end of the cave directing mortar and rocket fire on a South Vietnamese infantry company and their American advisers below with deadly accuracy.
When the NVA heard the two Americans, both grabbed their rifles and turned. The artillery observer and Chermol killed both. Then Chermol led his company down to help the beleaguered South Vietnamese company below, routing the enemy, killing many, and saving many "friendly" lives.
Chermol said that during his time in command, his unit saw constant action, with most unit members experiencing shrapnel or bullet wounds. Chermol himself was wounded by a grenade on an assault on a Viet Cong village.
Another memory was a five-day period during the monsoon season when the company was on firebase security and the rain was constantly so heavy that a resupply helicopter could not reach the base for five days. By the time a resupply did arrive, they had been without any food for over 24 hours and only one C-ration meal per day before that.
Chermol recalls real fear when helicopters picked up his company in the field. It was overcast weather. En route back, the helicopter commander remarked that this was his last flight as he was going home.
A few minutes later, the formation entered a heavy fog bank and got scattered. The pilot dropped low to get out of the fog -- and decided to just follow a small river back to the coast.
Chermol was sitting in the door and as the helo flew low over a village, he saw there were uniformed troops in classes just below. A North Vietnamese battalion was all along the river. As they heard the helo, they grabbed their AK-47s and started shooting.
Chermol said bullets were hitting the blade, which prevented the pilot from gaining altitude. Within seconds, the co-pilot was hit, as were both door gunners, two unit radio operators and a medic. The helo "limped" back to Chu Lai, where the wounded were offloaded.
The helo had over 50 bullet holes, Chermol said. Despite the fact Chermol had been in the door shooting back at the ground troops, he was not wounded but did have a bullet that went through the pack on his back, which was, luckily, partially filled with full C-ration cans.
This reminded Chermol of another time when he was lying chest down returning fire and an enemy sniper in a tree shot off part of his boot heel. Luck, he said.
During his time in Vietnam, Chermol also served as the brigade liaison officer to the Peers Committee investigating the My Lai Massacre -- the mass execution of Vietnamese women and children in a Viet Cong village by an American unit. As such, he was on the ground to brief the committee members upon their arrival and show them the mass graves.
Chermol extended his tour by three months before he entered college in Missouri to complete the last year of his degree. He completed his bachelor's degree; his master's degree; his doctorate (University of South Carolina); and his clinical internship at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. During the entire period, he continued to serve in the Army Reserve or National Guard (medical company commander).
After returning to active duty while attending USC, Chermol served at the Army Aviation Center, Walter Reed, and at the Academy of Health Sciences -- and as an Army expert on "battle fatigue" (now called PTSD) and as the clinical psychology consultant to the U.S. surgeon general.
Then he spent a year in war-torn El Salvador in Central America where, as the deputy commander of a medical training team sent to improve medical services in the country's army, the team's headquarters in the capital was attacked multiple times.
From El Salvador, Lt. Col. Chermol took command of the 142nd Medical Battalion in Panama. Unit members provided care to soldiers stationed in Panama but the unit also sent medical teams throughout Central and South America to provide medical care with the host country's medical personnel in isolated native villages.
Upon completion of that assignment, Col. Chermol attended the Army War College for a year. He then became the brigade commander at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center for two years before retiring.
Upon his retirement after over 30 years of service, Chermol became a mental health consultant at the Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg. He retired from RMC in 2001.
In 2006, at 62, he accepted the civilian position of deputy country logistics manager (Afghanistan), where he supervised over 8,000 civilian employees from the U.S. and other countries who provided food services, did all construction, ran warehouses, did vehicle repair, provided fire services, maintained airfields, etc. for U.S. forces.
Chermol's office was a bunker-style building on Bagram Air Force Base, a base subjected to frequent but, with a few tragic exceptions, usually ineffective rocket attacks.
Chermol's duties required him to make trips around Afghanistan by air and vehicle. He said that while in Afghanistan, there were vehicles hit by IEDs a few miles ahead of him and behind him, but he was never targeted.
Speaking as a decorated former combat commander, Chermol said his heroes in combat were combat medics, draftees and, of course, the 50,000 KIA who "gave all."
When fighting was heavy and the infantrymen were firing from cover, it was the combat medics who time and again left safety to crawl or sprint forward to recover wounded soldiers. In Chermol's unit, it was much more dangerous to be a medic than to have any other job -- as demonstrated by the large number of his medics wounded.
The second group was the draftees, who had accepted their induction and were, in nearly every case, willing to fight with courage and determination, he said.